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Friday 29 May 2015

‘Whiskers of the Lion’ by P L Gaus

Published by Plume,
9 April 2015.
ISBN: 978-0-14-218173-7 (PB)

The Amish are gentle, peace-loving folk, and an Amish-country mystery with a particularly violent death in the first chapter seems, at first sight, like a contradiction in terms. But in a way, that’s the whole point of P L Gaus’s carefully plotted, atmospheric novel, and possibly of his entire series of Amish-country novels.

Fannie Helmuth is a young Amish woman, and a key potential witness in a major drugs case; she has gone missing, in fear for her life. The leading perpetrator is still at large, and Fannie is in extreme danger until the woman is caught. The Amish community has ways of protecting its own; as long as she remains among her own people, Fannie is safe – but the FBI are desperate to lay hands on her, to ensure she is available to testify when the drug-dealers are finally tracked down.

Sheriff Bruce Robertson is not Amish himself, but he has great sympathy with them. An Amish community follows its own traditions and practices within his territory, and he is keen to shield them not only from the criminal underworld which seems to exist everywhere, but also from less congenial elements of his own community of law-keepers. So he devises his own plan to keep Fannie safe, and protect her and her people from the worst excesses of the FBI.

The result is an engaging account of how his plan plays out, interwoven with an insight into the ways of the Amish people. They are the true heroes of the story: old-fashioned and naive by some standards, but canny and astute under their quaint, ingenuous exterior. The narrative moves at a leisurely pace, but since that’s how life is in rural Ohio, it’s appropriate.

The novel contains the essential elements of a good murder mystery: gruesome death; interesting characters with plenty of backstory, who make you want to cheer when they get one over on the  FBI men; those hobnail-booted federal agents ripe for duping, who seem to be de rigueur in an American mystery set outside the big city; and of course a dramatic final take-down. But it also has a lot more. There’s a generous helping of gentle humour; a sense of life going on outside the story, in an environment that is brought vividly to life; and an ending which is satisfying on its own terms, though possibly not in a conventional way.

There’s a whole series of Amish-country mysteries; Whiskers of the Lion is the tenth. They may not be easily available in UK bookshops, and eBook editions seem to be in short supply too. I think that’s a great pity.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

P L Gaus was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1949, and he has lived in Ohio for most of his life.Paul’s extensive knowledge of the culture and lifestyle of the Ohio Amish comes from over thirty years of travel throughout Holmes and surrounding counties in Ohio, where the world’s largest Amish and Mennonite population sprawls out over the countryside near Millersburg, Wooster, and Sugarcreek. Paul took an interest in writing fiction in 1993, and with the advice and encouragement of author Tony Hillerman, he began writing mystery novels set among the Amish in Holmes County, Ohio. The first of Gaus’s mysteries, Blood of the Prodigal, An Ohio Amish Mystery, was published by Ohio University Press in June of 1999, and a total of six novels have appeared in this series: Broken English, 2000, Clouds without Rain, 2001, Cast a Blue Shadow, 2003, A Prayer for the Night, 2006, and Separate from the World, 2008. A seventh novel in the series is in preparation. Paul retired recently as the Benjamin S. Brown Professor of Chemistry at The College of Wooster, where he was Chairperson of the Chemistry Department. He was educated at Miami University (B.S.) and Duke University (Ph.D.), and he has held positions as Visiting Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois, Texas A&M University, University of Wisconsin (Madison), and The Ohio State University.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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